Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fostering emotional safety in marriage

If you’re anything like me, every time I read a book on marriage I come away feeling slightly depressed, guilty and overwhelmed as I realize all of my failings as a wife. The pages of the book only serve to remind me of all the good things I could have done and for some reason or another didn’t! I hate that feeling and it tends to build an aversion to reading books on marriage, not good! While nothing on earth is perfect “Safe Haven Marriage” has a different approach. It addresses the underlying cause of most marriage problems; poor emotional connectivity and it does this with clear, commonsense and manageable exercises. So may I encourage you to read on?

If you had the chance to read last week’s introduction you’ll know that my husband and I were part of a Safe Haven Marriage group. One of the things we loved about Safe Haven Marriage is that co-authors Archibald Hart and Sharon Hart Morris; a father and daughter duo; while both Christian psychologists, write in a very conversational down to earth manner. Sharon specializes in EFT or emotionally focused therapy and works through an attachment theory lens. In a nutshell, attachment theory is concerned with how well we trust and build bonds with others; something we learn in our early childhood from our primary caregivers. What all this means is that couples are encouraged to contact their feelings and find constructive and safe ways of expressing them so as to draw closer to their spouse and build deeper and safer connections with each other; a very good thing to do.

The safe haven idea arises out of the metaphor for a boat that has passed out beyond the heads where the waves surge and can be rough, threatening damage to the boat. Once the boat returns to the bay the waters are more serene and manageable, hence there is safety. Our marriages are likened to this sea-faring reality; out in the world we face many challenges as men and women. When we return home we long for our partners to be a place of safety and comfort for us where we can be understood, known and accepted, for who we really are, we all long for a “safe haven” for our hearts. Unfortunately, our marriages can at times be all too much like being out at sea beyond the headlands where the waves are unpredictable and dangerous and we feel unsafe.

If you’re a wife, then you, like me, have no doubt failed, let down, hurt and disappointed your husband many times over the course of your marriage, it’s normal and unavoidable as broken and sinful people. Maybe you even fight regularly. Yet strangely enough according to long term marital researcher John Gottman, fighting is not the number one indicator of a marriage in trouble; however not fighting is! Did you expect that? When a couple fights they are actually attempting to make a connection with their mate, albeit a bad one. So a marriage in crisis will actually be typified by emotional disconnection and withdrawal. If this is sounding like your marriage and right now you have a knot in the pit of your stomach then as tempting as it is don’t despair. Arch and Sharon have seen many marriages like this in their practices over the years and hence have written this book to help couples rebuild their emotional connection if they sense they have lost it or are losing it and the good news is; it is possible to rebuild emotional connectivity after it’s declined. Not saying it’s going to be easy but it can through prayer and some hard work be achieved. The chapters are full of practical suggestions that are not overwhelming. And despite all the research of the likes of John Gottman, as followers of Christ we have some great advantages; the grace of God and prayer.

We can damage the emotional connectivity we have with our spouses in many ways but some of the most common ones which you might recognize are; the busyness of life, past unresolved conflicts and not being there for each other when you’re needed. On the other hand a safe haven marriage would be hallmarked by; trustworthiness, emotional availability and sensitive responsiveness.

In my own 23 year long marriage I can look back and see ups and downs in our emotional connectivity. I can see the times when the busyness and day to day stressors of life have kept my husband and I from being there for each other and how easy it can be to drift apart but I can also see the times when we have been available for each other during the difficult times and how that has strengthened the trust and bonds between us. Going through the questions and exercises at the end of each chapter has been a great exercise to do as part of a group together. Being with four other couples normalized the behaviors that we all felt ashamed of and didn’t want to mention out loud. I thought this even more significant for the men. As women we are more inclined to speak out our emotions and do so more regularly with each other. However the men rarely have this opportunity. Being in a group of couples allowed and encouraged both the men and women to speak and afforded the men a time to find their voices and speak out what they were feeling more than they usually would. I can’t remember that last time I saw a bunch of guys sitting around talking about their marriages openly but in a safe haven marriage group that happens. I can’t recommend it enough to you.

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